The boom of the travel ball scene affected baseball across the United States. What about Plant City?
In Plant City, there’s no shortage of options for youths who want to play baseball.
From Plant City Little League to Florida Baseball Heaven or any of the other local travel ball squads, there are enough choices out there for families. But the thing that’s been on these parents’ minds over the past few years: What’s best for the kids?
Although Little League comes at a lower cost, the popularity of travel ball has had some effects on Little League participation. But even travel ball isn’t safe from young athletes who age out.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
Plant City Little League President Ben Smith has seen both sides of the ball. He’s been involved with PCLL and travel ball for about five years, so he knows the ins and outs of both better than many.
In his opinion, travel ball has been the top reason for PCLL’s declining numbers.
Smith said that he’s stepping down from his role as PCLL president but will be glad to help out as a coach if asked. His son, who has played in PCLL and on travel teams, will now be exclusively playing travel ball in preparation for high school.
“I had a great time with all the kids and, if I could do it again, I would,” Smith said. “But we’re not getting the turnout for the large fields, where I feel like my son would benefit, so I want to take him where I feel like he would get the most out of it, moving forward.”
Aging out seems to be a common problem for both PCLL and travel ball.
In Little League, many coaches or board members will change roles as their children move into higher age groups. When the kids age out of Little League, parents move with them.
In travel ball, this has contributed to the short overall lifespan of teams. Smith estimates Plant City’s travel ball teams often last for two to three years before splitting up, often forming one or two new teams in their wake. Part of it is related to kids aging out, part of it is from philosophical differences.
It’s not unheard of for separated teams to reunite, however. The Rawlings Renegades, coached by Tim Dowdy, recently reformed as the Cutters after its split.
“Sometimes, all they need is a little break,” Smith said. “You take a year off and realize you were having a good time, you had a good team and you enjoyed it.”
IN PLANT CITY
Smith estimates that there are five to six travel teams that operate out of Plant City. But that number could be higher, given that new teams are formed from the ground up every year.
A big reason parents and coaches are so keen to get into travel ball is the competition level. A commonly-held belief across the country is that, in travel ball, the kids will face far greater competition than they would in their local Little League group.
“There are some teams that play travel ball tournaments that have Little League-caliber players, but there’s not a lot of those that are out there,” Smith said. “Typically, when you play a travel tourney or league play game, the teams are all-star caliber.”
Facing stiffer competition, Smith says, creates better ballplayers.
Competition is the driving force behind travel ball, from the players to the tournament hosts. Everyone involved is driven by the prospect of winning baseball games and getting the kids exposure for their efforts.
“The difference between travel ball and rec ball is that nobody tells (travel coaches) who can be on their team and who can’t,” GSA Baseball President Bob Mondoux said. “I think rec ball is great for kids but, some of these coaches — even when I coached — I would have kids on my team and I’d be babysitting … not every kid in travel ball is great out there, but you know that the kids want to be there.”
Not all parents and kids want that pressure, however. Many players just want to have fun, and that’s where Smith believes Little League is a better option.
“It isn’t a win-driven type of baseball,” he said. “In travel ball, you go out there and expect to win every game. If you don’t, parents tend to get more upset. Little League is more about friendship, camaraderie and playing for the fun of the game.”
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BREAKING IT DOWN
As with Little League, travel ball seasons offer league play. Travel players can do fall and spring league play seasons, and teams in these leagues are seeded for an end-of-season tournament based on performances.
“They’ll have 20 to 30 league play games, doubleheaders,” Plant City Little League President Ben Smith said. “You can win or lose, but you’re not getting eliminated from anything.”
That’s about where parallels with Little League end.
Little League ball comes with restrictions that travel ball doesn’t abide by. One that travel coaches particularly dislike is the closed bases rule, which prevents baserunners from leading off or stealing.
Travel ball players often opt to play year round, racking up more games in one year than Little League players would in two. Teams are also free to schedule opponents on their own terms: they can let organizations know when they’ll be playing, and the organizations work with such schedules to determine seeding.
“You might have some teams that play every weekend, and some that play every other weekend, or some that play every Saturday, but not Sunday,” Smith said.
The end-of-season tournaments aren’t the only ones travel teams are restricted to: teams are allowed to compete in tournaments that take place during the regular season, and their tournament performances are accounted for.
The AAU and USSSA are some of the most populated organizations, but another popular Florida option is Plant City-based GSA Baseball. Tournaments can often cost families $200 each, but GSA charges $80 per tournament.
The travel ball costs can also soar higher than a Giancarlo Stanton home run: while PCLL families will have to pay around $160 for a full season, Smith says that travel ball costs can often fall in the $600 to $900 range for a full season. Recently, his Plant City Prowlers team paid over $20,000 to travel to Cooperstown, New York, for a weeklong tournament.
Despite its higher costs and commitments, travel ball seems to be the hottest thing in Plant City — hot enough to be a big reason why Little League ball has been on the decline over the last several years.